Scripture: Jeremiah 23:23-29
The prophets are a strange bunch of characters. Their behaviors are so eccentric, so odd that we often aren’t quite sure what to make of them. Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for three years. Hosea saw it as part of his call from God to marry a prostitute. Jonah, not wanting to extend God’s message of forgiveness to the people of Nineveh, wound up in the belly of a whale. Ezekiel ate a scroll and declared that it tasted sweet as honey. Jeremiah hid his underwear under a rock and then went back to retrieve it after a few days! What were these prophets really about? Why did God send them? Was there a purpose behind their strange behaviors? Are there any prophets among us today? Prophets then and now respond to what’s happening in the world; they creatively uncloud our vision, helping us to see differently, pulling back the scales from our eyes. They question our own individual dreams and the dreams of our society and invite us to dream God’s dream, by expanding our imagination. Asking people to reflect upon how they live their lives and inviting them to expand their imagination is difficult work. Sometimes it takes strange characters willing to streak through the city and eat scrolls to get people’s attention.
Theologian and Scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively about the prophets. His book called, The Prophetic Imagination, first published in 1978, has shaped the way theologians understand prophetic ministry. Brueggemann’s goal was to free the prophets from the stereotypes of foreteller or social protester so that we could see the broadness of their role, their focus on effecting change by sparking newness and enlivening imagination. Brueggemann’s main claim is this: “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient. It may be, of course, that this enduring crisis manifests itself in any given time around concrete issues, but it concerns the enduring crisis that runs from concrete issue to concrete issue.”[i] In order to create an alternative, the prophet must “cut through numbness” and “penetrate self-deception”[ii] so that people can become aware of what’s wrong in the world. You must be able to name injustice before addressing it. You must be able to see how the world is not operating like God intended before you can offer a different vision for the way things can be. You must be able to discern what the enduring dominant crises are in our world. However, prophetic ministry has to have a deep awareness of context and culture in order to be able to identify those broad and enduring crises. The prophet Jeremiah was certainly immersed in the specifics of his context and culture but was also able to step back and see their overarching sins and injustices.
The book of Jeremiah is written in response to the crisis that was taking place in the kingdom of Judah; this crisis ultimately culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. During the last days of the seventh century, the time of Jeremiah, there was a collapse of the Assyrian empire to the north of Judah. The Assyrians were displaced by the Babylonians under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. Judah also dealt with the powerful Egyptians to the south, who often used Judah as a buffer for their own protection against the Babylonians. Judah was not able to withstand the Babylonians; their unwise and weak monarchy helped lead to their demise. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and home of the temple, had specific ways of thinking about how God was at work in their land. The king and the temple priests claimed that Yahweh had taken up residence in Jerusalem and would always work through their temple and through the monarchy. They thought that God would protect the status-quo and would always work through the establishment. But their theology fell to pieces as they were torn apart and exiled from their land by the Babylonians. This scene was Jeremiah’s culture and context. His words in the book of Jeremiah attempt to evoke a different reality and help the people of Judah imagine God working in a new and different way.
Before offering a new reality, Jeremiah grieved the old one. The destruction of Judah brought him great distress. He cries out in chapter 4, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste. Suddenly my tents are destroyed, my curtains in a moment.” (4:19-20) Jeremiah was devastated by the impending disaster because he cared about the people of Judah, and he was also devastated that those people in power refused to see what was coming. In chapter 6, he says his words fall on closed ears: “To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? See their ears are closed, they cannot listen. The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take not pleasure in it. But I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary of holding it in. Everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (parts of 6:10-14). Of course, the kings do not want to envision a new reality where they are not in power, so they continue to speak peace though the world is collapsing.
Jeremiah weeps, and then he calls all the people to gather together and weep. He says that Rachel, the mother of Israel, is weeping too. “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (31:15). What Jeremiah knows is that only endings can lead to beginnings, only going through anguish leads to new life, only grieving can lead to joy. Brueggemann says that Jeremiah’s “weeping permits the kingdom to come. Such weeping is a radical criticism, a fearful dismantling because it means the end of all machismo; weeping is something kings rarely do without losing their thrones. Yet the loss of thrones is precisely what is called for…”[iii] Jeremiah’s tears call attention to the crumbling of the dreams of Judah’s kings and make room for the possibility of God’s dream for the people of Judah.
Our text for today makes it clear that what’s at stake is the very character of God. God cannot be domesticated by our thrones, our kingdoms, our culture, our context. God works in ways beyond our imagining. The prophet expands our imagination. “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (23:23-24) Certainly, God is near, but God cannot be contained by our systems. God fills heaven and earth. God is beyond us. God cannot be domesticated. If we cannot imagine God working in ways that are larger than us, then we have misunderstood God’s nature.
Our text also directly takes on the so-called prophets of peace, the false prophets who proclaim peace and well-being over Israel when there really is no peace; they have misunderstood God’s nature, confined God, and distorted God’s character. The prophet speaks on behalf of the Lord, “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” (23:25-28a) The false prophets believe that God is near because they believe God to be aligned with the throne. The false prophets paint God to be easily accessible, undemanding, and manipulatible. The false prophets say that God is no threat and will not do harm. Their prophesies ensure the continuation of the way things are. Jeremiah reminds us that God’s word is like fire and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces. We are to respect God’s otherness, God’s transcendence. We are to remember God’s name and not get caught up in the idols of our world. We are to be reminded that sometimes God burns down our dreams to make room for God’s dreams. Sometimes God demands that we not leave things as they are. Sometimes we must be purified. Sometimes our hopes must be shattered so we can imagine God’s future.
We have lots of dreams and hopes for our future. Some of them are conscious; some of them are subconscious. Some of them come out of our deep needs and desires; some of them emerged from what we lacked in our childhood; some of them are shaped by our culture in ways we can’t even understand. Glennon Doyle Melton – many of you know her through her blog, “Momastery” – shares the story of her life struggles in her memoir, called Carry On Warrior. After having three biological children, one of Glennon and her husband’s greatest dreams was to adopt a child; they felt this passion and this longing as God’s plan for them. They pursued adoption for years, spending many days and evenings on the phone in consultation with adoption agencies. Every time they got close to adopting, the dreaded background check came, and agency after agency rejected them because of Glennon’s past as an alcoholic. Glennon spent most nights crying herself to sleep; she prayed God would make a way for them to adopt or take away her desperate hope to mother an adopted child. One day they received some hopeful news from an agency in Guatemala and thought that international adoption was going to be their answer to prayer. But then a call came letting them know they were too much of a risk. Glennon sunk into a deep depression, believing her dream was lost.
Soon after that phone call, a letter came from that same Guatemalan adoption agency; they were struggling financially and sent a letter to everyone who had ever been affiliated with them to ask for money so they could keep helping orphans. Glennon heard the voice of the Lord resounding in her head, saying, “Do you really want to help my orphans, or do you just want to adopt a child?” After a lot of praying, Glennon and her husband decided to give all the money that they had set aside to adopt their own child to save this Guatemalan adoption agency. Glennon described their decision: “There are only two lives we might live: our dream or our destiny. Sometimes they are one in the same, and sometimes they’re not. Often our dreams are just a path to our destinies. My dream was to be an adoptive mother, but my destiny is to mother my three children, to be a wife, sister, friend, and daughter, and to speak hope boldly to you. My destiny is to remind you to look up from the castles you’re building in the sand long enough to notice the cathedrals that God’s building all around you—without you, without your sweat, without your tears, without your consent. While you dream your dreams, God is busy building your destiny. And there is as much beauty and more in your destiny as there was in your dream. Let go and believe that whatever it is, it will be beautiful.”[iv]
What sandcastles are you building? Can you let go and look around to see the cathedrals that God’s building all around you? Are we building sandcastles as a community of faith? Are we holding on to the dreams we’ve created based on our individual desires? Are we holding on to dreams that we think belong to God but only belong to our culture? Are we holding on to dreams that keep things as they are, satiating the comfortable and disenfranchising the poor? Are we holding on to dreams that speak peace where there is no peace? Are we holding on to dreams that keep us from seeing the persistent and dominating crises of our time? Are we holding on to dreams that restrict our imagination for a world where God’s kingdom is brought to earth? Our dreams eventually crumble like sand and get washed away by the tide. Our dreams are like straw; straw has its purpose but it comes up short when compared to wheat. Wheat has the capacity to nourish, and its nourishment gives us what we need to let go of our own dreams and to dream God’s dream.
Brueggemann tells us that a community that’s able to engage in prophetic ministry is likely a community in which there is a long and available memory, an available and expressed sense of pain, an active practice of hope, and an effective mode of discourse. These characteristics that cultivate the ability to do prophetic ministry are often found in a context of oppression. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King rose up as prophets from oppressive situations; they had the clarity to see the world as it really was, the ability to grieve the way things were, and the imagination to see the world as it could be. It’s hard to be a prophet in our culture because most of us benefit from the way things are. It’s hard to offer an alternative when we aren’t sure we want one. It’s hard to resist something that benefits us. But as the people of God, we are called to imagine a reality that’s not driven by our own dreams and desires but God’s dream of the kingdom. We are called to let go of our idols and remember the name of the Lord. We are called to confront those people who make God’s people forget God’s name by the deceitful dreams they tell one another. We are called to trade in the dreams of our culture for God’s dream for the entire world. As we sang during our Gathering Hymn, “We are called to be God’s prophets, speaking for the truth and right, standing firm for godly justice, bringing evil into light. Let us seek the courage needed, our high calling to fulfill, that we all may know the blessing of the doing of God’s will.”
If we dare to be prophets, we too may be seen as strange characters. If we dare to be prophets, our behavior might need to be eccentric and odd to get people’s attention. If we dare to be prophets, we will speak God’s word faithfully. If we dare to be prophets, we will let God’s word consume and shatter us. If we dare to be prophets, we will remember that God is a God who is both near and far off, a God who fills heaven and earth. If we dare to be prophets, we will let God loose, instead of attempting to domesticate or confine or manipulate God. If we dare to be prophets, we will weep for things as they are, and we will grieve because things are not as they should be. If we dare to be prophets, we will lift our heads up from the castles we are building in the sand and not forget God’s name. If we dare to be prophets, God will give us the courage to burn down our own dreams and enliven our imagination so that we can dream God’s dream, the dream of the kingdom, where there is justice and love and peace for all.